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The big, booming business behind the humble GIF

There’s no point in denying it: The GIF is an Internet staple we’ve completely given in to. But we humble users aren’t the only ones – when anything sees as meteoric a rise as GIFs have, you can bet that entrepreneurs are also realizing the opportunities.
A surplus of Web and mobile apps that help us make and use GIFs have hit the market, but behind the fun they deliver for users, there is booming business potential. And these startups creating businesses around GIF creation and consumption are coming up with unique monetization strategies that might actually work – better yet, there aren’t entirely built around ads.

The democratization of the GIF artist

Suffice it to say that any early reservations about exactly how popular GIFs could be are dead; they’ve proven themselves far more than just a file format.

But the reality of the matter is that most people have absolutely no idea how to make a GIF. Many of us would rather rip ‘em straight from Tumblr or Google Image Search than make them ourselves. And this is where entrepreneurs spied potential: Now that GIFs have got our attention, they’re making it easier than ever for us to create them.

Cinemagraph GIFs are enjoying recent popularity, but are quite detailed and can be difficult to make. Thankfully, Cinemagram swooped in and boiled down an otherwise tediously complex two hour Photoshopping routine into clockwork you can control with the tip of your finger. All you have to do is point, shoot, and direct Cinemagram to work its magic.

Not all GIFs are high art, however. The pop culture GIF is literally the stuff Tumblr “My Reaction When” blogs are made of. New app Riffsy has answered this particular call by helping you transform videos into captionable storyboard GIFs all from your phone.

It doesn’t end at GIF creation; GIF search has also seen ample innovation. When people found themselves desperate for a GIF search engine, they were left to resort to one of a few choices: Tumblr, Google Image Search, or your stockpile of GIFs on your desktop that you’ve collected from Reddit or 4Chan – thankfully, Giphy has made a business of helping you find the perfect GIF.

It’s not all fun and games either. While you’re GIF-making might start as nothing more than a passing interest in yet another app, it can become much more. A passing glance at some of the Web’s media heavyweights (Buzzfeed, ESPN, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, MTV) reveals how mainstream and profitable a job in GIF creation can be. Tumblr might be the most recognizale company that’s aggressively plucking skilled GIF artists out and finding them gainful employment.

Being a GIF artist can land you quite the job, as Mert Keskin can attest to. Keskin was hired as the GIF Editor for Tumblr three years ago as the media trend was beginning its ascent (or re-ascent, as many see it).

Keskin admits he’s not exactly sure what abot his GIFs attracted the job offer, but assumes his “video game sprite” style of GIFs were what caught Tumblr’s attention. He’s responsible for GIF creation and curation; for instance in 2012 Tumblr was pegged to help create GIFs for the MTV Video Music Awards as well as pick user submissions, an effort Keskin was highly involved with.

While all journalists might not be able to create GIFs with the flair of Keskin or other elite GIF-makers, it is quickly becoming a skill publishers will be happy to see on any resume.

Clearly, there is abundant demand for products and platforms that solve our first-world GIF frustrations (GIFrustrations?), but is there an economy strong enough to support this business?

The Business of “GIF-ing”

When it comes to nearly all things digital, monetization schemes almost always come back to ads. Surprisingly, this avenue isn’t the only route that some GIF apps are headed down.

While there are a handful of apps like GIF SHOP and Giffer charging for downloads, the freemium model is hugely popular – and it’s where the business of GIFs gets interesting.

For instance, Giphy is exploring how to break into sponsored content. “We think there’s a lot of potential in media partnerships that results in not just advertising dollars for us, but unique, high quality GIFs for our users,” Giphy says.
Giphy employs freelance artists, and the platform is looking into offering brands the ability to contract these Giphy artists to develop potentially viral GIFs that sit on the front page – tastefully of course – for a certain number of days.

And the beauty of GIFs is the critical fact that product placement or no product placement, as long as the GIF resonates with users, people will share it. It’s happenstance advertising and more natural – it’s like a prepackaged marketing scheme.

Riffsy has a similar monetization strategy in mind. Advertisers, brands, and TV networks can encourage users to upload URLs of TV shows onto Riffsy and just have fun captioning the resulting GIFs. When users start sharing their creations, these brands are getting more eyeballs simply by involving themselves with the app.

For instance, Redux (the creators of Riffsy) CEO and founder David McIntosh names Machinima, Geek and Sundy, and iJustine when we asked him about the app’s early brand adopters – and then shows off a Starbucks Riff. On first glance, the Riff looks like it was made by an everyday user.

He tests me, asking, “Is that an advertisement or just a cool Riff?” I want to say the latter, but even if it were an ad, it’s one I don’t mind. “The beauty of Riffs is that because they’re so instantly consumable, advertising can organically blend into the product. Advertisers can choose which video or site the Riff links to,” says McIntosh.

With branded content on Riffsy’s mind, McIntosh explains that Riffsy is in the business of selling “sponsored” Riffs, which show up in users’ dashboards, and since the business of Riffs is to “drive audience to video,” he eventually has plans to include premium analytic tools for brands.

Clearly we’ve moved beyond the glittery MySpace graphics into a more mature, business-minded GIF era. One where making GIFs isn’t just fun, it’s potentially profitable – and where they aren’t just to be enjoyed, but to advertise. Is the GIF in danger of being so highly commoditized it loses its Internet cred and becomes just another marketing tool?

Maybe, but with brilliance like this, it’s hard to tell if we’ll even know … or care.